LIAR, LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE! – ARIZONA DEFAMATION LAW
Gossip. We’ve probably all been guilty of it at some point. We’ve all known people who seem to gossip all the time. Some people make lucrative careers of peddling gossip. Part of us knows it’s wrong to spread potentially harmful rumors, but we listen anyway. Maybe it makes us feel better to know that others have real or perceived problems like we do, preferably even worse than we do.
“Dirty little secrets, dirty little lies
We got our dirty little fingers in everybody’s pie
Love to cut you down to size, we love dirty laundry”
The Eagles, Dirty Laundry
Before you go passing on that juicy, scandalous bit of information you heard from your next-door neighbor about the people who live down the street, you should think twice. It could get you in big trouble. Defamation is no laughing matter. You can be liable for damage caused by spreading falsehoods.
A statement is defamatory if it tends to bring a person into disrepute, contempt or ridicule, or to impeach the person’s honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation. Revised Arizona Jury Instructions (Civil), 7th Ed., Defamation 2. Traditionally, the law recognized two types of defamatory statements that you’ve probably heard of – libel and slander. Libel means the statement was in writing. Slander means it was spoken. The distinction isn’t important for purposes of this Badger Blog post.
In Arizona, the elements of a defamation claim are:
- a false statement concerning the plaintiff;
- the statement was defamatory;
- the statement was published to a third party;
- the requisite fault on the part of the defendant; and
- the plaintiff was damaged as a result of the statement.
Morris v. Warner, 160 Ariz. 55, 62 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1988).
To be “defamatory,” a statement must be false and bring the defamed person into disrepute, contempt, or ridicule, or impeach her honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation. Godbehere v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 162 Ariz. 335, 341 (Ariz. 1989).
In Arizona, defamation cases have a one-year statute of limitations. A.R.S. 12-541(1)https://www.azleg.gov/ars/12/00541.htm
In most cases in Arizona, you can be liable for making or writing a defamatory statement to any third person (even one) if the statement was false and you were negligent in failing to determine whether it was true. If the defamatory statement was about a public official (like a mayor or governor) or a public figure (someone who is in the limelight or the public eye) or involved a matter of public concern, then the law gets a bit more complicated. In those types of cases, the defamed person would have to prove that you acted with “actual malice” before he or she could recover damages. Actual malice means that you either knew that the statement was false or acted with reckless disregard for its truth at the time you made or wrote it to the third party. This means you disregarded serious doubt as to whether the statement was true or you consciously disregarded whether it was true or false.
As you may already be aware, truth is a defense to a defamation claim. If the allegedly defamatory statement was “substantially true,” it is a defense even if it contains “slight inaccuracies.” Also, a person is generally not liable for statements of opinion, as opposed to statements of fact. A fact is something that can be proved true or false using objective criteria. However, even a statement that is phrased as an opinion may be considered a statement of fact if it states or implies that a fact is true.
Also, you can be liable for the repetition of a false and defamatory statement by third persons if you should have reasonably expected that those third persons would pass it on. Once the word gets out, you can’t take it back. It moves like the wind and can spread like wildfire. That can increase your potential exposure to liability by a lot.
Damages in defamation cases can be substantial. The defamed person is entitled to recover for past and future monetary loss, like loss of a job or business. The defamed person is also entitled to recover damages for impairment of reputation and standing in the community, and for emotional distress, humiliation, inconvenience, and anxiety experienced and reasonably probable to be experienced in the future. A person’s good name is worth a lot. Once it’s been tarnished, it’s hard if not impossible to get it back. In addition, if he defamed person proves “actual malice,” as discussed above, he or she may be entitled to an award of “punitive” damages. These can be very substantial as well.
So before you pass on that rumor, you may want to stop and think about it. Hope this post helps.
Defamation law has lots of nuances and fine points that are beyond the scope of this Badger Blog post. This is meant to give a general understanding of the law in Arizona.
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